How to Photograph the Northern Lights
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I have composed several articles on travel in Alaska and have mentioned the Northern Lights a few times, but one thing I have not written about is tips on photographing it.
Photographing the Northern Lights is the ultimate dream for numerous landscape photographers. However, not everyone is lucky enough to witness this magical display; even a voyage to the great white north does not guarantee this fantastic show. So here I offer you tips on how to chase the Aurora, as well as general photography guidelines.
Best places to witness the Aurora Borealis
The Northern Lights are usually visible overhead in the Arctic Circle and its vicinity. Around the world, the hotspots for the Aurora are:
- Northern Scandinavia
- Northern Canada
Among these, Fairbanks, Alaska and Churchill, Manitoba (Canada) are Aurora destinations of choice. On average, the Aurora appears Fairbanks on over 245 days annually, and at Churchill on 300 days.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights
The best time to witness the Aurora is during the fall and the winter (late August to March) from 10pm to 3am. The best weather condition in which to view the Aurora is under a clear and dark sky.
Get away from the city center as street lights are a distraction. Riverbanks, mountain hills, and farmland are the best places to wait for the lights to show up. There are times when the Aurora is too faint to be seen. If you feel something mysterious over the sky, take a picture toward the north first to double-check. If there is any trace of the Aurora, your photos will often exhibit green, red, or blue lights, or vertical rays.
Camera body: It does not matter which camera you are using, as long as it is capable of adjusting shutter speed, aperture and ISO manually. Currently, I use Canon Rebel T3-SLR camera for Northern Lights photography. A camera with all-automatic setting may not work well in this case.
Lens: since the Aurora usually covers enormous areas of the sky, a wide-angle lens is necessary for shooting. The ideal f/ratio (aperture) is 2.8 and lower. Aperture higher than f2.8 may require longer shutter speed and higher ISO to compensate, and increase your ISO results in grainy photos. A fisheye lens helps you to fit as much of the Aurora and sky in as possible, and allows you to get more creative compositions. I do not recommend fisheye lens to everyone, for budget reasons. However, if you are able to afford one, it is worth trying.
Tripod: this is not the time to skimp on a high- quality tripod. Considering you need to take an exposure of many seconds, the camera has to be mounted on a sturdy tripod. As Aurora pictures may need to be taken in the dead of winter, your tripod should be fairly windproof and weather -resistant. A high-quality tripod is expensive, but will be more reliable than a flimsy one.
Cable release/Remote control: as the exposure goes from 15 seconds to 30 seconds, a cable release or automatic timer is recommended to minimize the movement of your camera.
Batteries: always keep a spare battery warm inside your pocket. Long exposure and freezing weather may decrease the longevity of your batteries faster than you can possibly imagine.
Filters: please – do not use them. They sort out the strongest light (green line) and bring concentric circles to the center of your image.
DSLR Camera Settings: ISO+ Shutter Speed + Aperture (f/ratio)
- Use manual setting and focus your camera to infinity by rotating the focus ring either to the right end or the left end.
- Try ISO speed of 800, shutter speed of 15 seconds, and aperture 2.8, or start the ISO with 400, shutter speed 15 and f/ratio to 2. Experiment with the aperture, shuttle speed, and ISO to figure out what combination works out best for you and your camera. However, do not let the ISO go over 800. Keep your exposures under 30 seconds. ISO over 800 creates noise for your images and shutter speed over 30 seconds results in a lack of details on the Aurora.
- Keep the white balance on AUTO.
Scout the location and look for something interesting in the foreground. A house, trees, road, and showground would add a sense of perspective to your image. A lake or river is usually a perfect photography spot as it will allow you to take images of Aurora Borealis with the reflection off the water. On a clear night, you can even capture the Milky Way running down the horizon.
A few more things you need to know
Stay warm. Not only keep yourself warm, but also try to insulate your photography gear to prevent it from frosting. Keep your camera lens cap on, or point it down when not shooting.
Check the weather and Aurora Forecast – I have wasted a great deal of time and energy during dreadful winter nights because I did not check the weather and the level of Aurora display in advance.
Get familiar with your camera – get to know your camera settings in advance and make sure you have tried some shots before the appearance of Aurora. If, for some reason, your camera is not working or has been forgotten, just stand back and enjoy watching the Northern Lights. This will also be a memorable experience.
Be patient – photographing Aurora means sleep deprivation and probably frostbite. Putting your head down early can make you miss out on a lucky sighting. Either sleeps through, or stays up and waits to observe the greatest explosion of the sky. Remember, excellent Aurora images require commitment, a great amount of research, and patient waiting. I still remember driving 68 miles away from the city, sitting out at minus -30 degrees and waiting till 12:30am for Aurora to show up on Christmas holiday seven years ago. However, none of that mattered once I saw this:
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